Athletics: Gardener's question time

Simon Turnbull hears success in Japan could be just a beginning
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JASON GARDENER had made it to top of The Podium. He was in the coffee house on the second floor of the Bath city centre shopping centre, asking the waitress for a little strawberry jam to spread on his teacake. Neither the setting nor the scene could have been more apposite. If Gardener had been a bit more jammy in the luck department last Sunday he probably would have been on top of the podium at the World Indoor Championships in Japan. He probably would have been a world record holder too.

Just 0.04sec separated the young West Country man from Maurice Greene in the 60m final in Maebashi. And just 0.07sec separated him from the American's world indoor record. "I've got one of these fancy stop-watches," Dave Lease, Gardener's coach cum mentor, said, "and the fastest I can press it on and off, clicking it as quickly as I can, is 0.08sec. That's the kind of margin we're talking about."

As it was, even with the stumble he made from his starting blocks, Gardener still took a giant step for British Sprinting Plc - Post Linford Christie, that is. Behind Greene, the 100m world champion, and Tim Harden, the other so-called "Kansas City Canonball", the Bath Bullet shot into the bronze medal position. It was the first impact made by a British sprinter at global senior level since Christie retired from championship competition two years ago. It also removed one of Christie's treasured achievements from the record books.

Gardener's time, 6.46sec, broke Christie's four-year-old British and European record by 0.01sec. It was, despite the golden deeds of Colin Jackson, Jamie Baulch and Ashia Hansen, the British performance of the championships. Not that Gardener was happy with the third step on the Maebashi podium.

"Going into the final, I honestly believed I could win it," he said, looking out on home ground at Pulteney Bridge. "No matter who was there - Maurice, with everything he's done - I felt I could win. I just couldn't control my start. I nearly fell on the floor. Immediately after the race I was really disappointed because I was coming back at them.

"On reflection now, I did take a big stumble and I still got a world championship bronze medal and a European record. So there's room for improvement, which is good. It's given me the fuel for my training for the months ahead. If I'd won I might have thought I'd arrived. But I haven't. I'm knocking on the door and it's gradually opening. Hopefully I'm going to slip through it soon."

His chances of doing so can only be enhanced by a hunger for success that has been sharpened by living off crumbs of encouragement since his days as a teenage prodigy. The transition from junior to senior level has not been an easy one for him and until last year, when he took the 60m silver medal at the European indoor championships in Valencia, he was troubled by a frustratingly persistent back problem.

At 23, Gardener has yet to represent Britain as a 100m runner in a senior major championship. He has also yet to beat the 10.25sec he clocked as the silver medallist in the 1994 world junior championships. His run last Sunday, however, is a clear indication of significantly better times ahead. A 60m time of 6.46sec equates to sub-10 seconds for 100m (Carl Lewis clocked precisely that for 60m en route to his old 9.86sec world record in Tokyo in 1991) and Christie is the only European to have achieved that barrier-breaking feat.

"I'm not going to say what I think I can do over 100m," Gardener said, "but I do want to be a sub-10 seconds sprinter. That's the expectation I have myself." It is an expectation shared by his guru, though Lease, too, chooses to keep his predictions to himself.

Europe's fastest 60m man has clearly gained much from the wise counsel of the genial Lease. Gardener has not been cast from the conventional shoot-from-the-lip heavyweight sprinting mould. For one thing, he is no physical heavyweight, possessing a high power-to-weight ratio and such a smooth style he can glide through a field virtually unnoticed at times. His shoulders do not rock and roll with bulk. They are well balanced in the metaphorical sense too. After Gardener's question time in The Podium, it was off to lectures for the student prince of British sprinting, who is reading mathematics, communications and sociology as an undergraduate at Bath Spa University.

Gardener also stands apart from the sprinting crowd in having remained true to his roots, even though a move from Wessex and Bath Athletics Club would have brought more suitable competition and though he is the only senior sprinter in the small group of athletes who gather at Culverhouse School to train under the direction of Lease, a refreshingly different character in his own right.

A former schoolteacher in Bath and now a member of the UK Athletics coaching team, Gardener's 53-year-old guru was an international trampolinist and pole vaulter in his youth. He laughs at the memory of how he almost let a European record-breaker disappear from under his nose. "I've actually known Jason since he was a baby," Lease said, "because we're vaguely related. My sister, Susan, is married to Jason's uncle, Mick. I didn't see much of Jason when I was up in Scotland as national coach for eight years but when I came back my sister said, `By the way, you should see our Jason run. He's very good'. In the the next breath she said, `Tina next door's a good runner too. You should have a look at her as well'. I thought to myself, `Sure. Everybody's a good runner'. But then Tina next door came third in the English schools 800m and I thought, `Wait a minute. I'd better go and see Jason pretty quickly'."

Seven years on, with more than a little help from his Aunt Susan's brother, the watching world saw Jason run pretty quickly in Maebashi.